Langston Hughes, 1901-1967

Biographical Sketch by Wendi Capehart

Langston Hughes was a Black poet and a leading voice in the remarkable Harlem Renaissance. He was born in the American Midwest in 1901, and moved around the Midwest for most of his childhood. His parents divorced and he lived with his grandmother in Laurence, Kansas for several years. In his autobiography Big Sea, he wrote,

"I was unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome, living with my grandmother. Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books--where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas."

Hughes lived in Mexico with his father for about a year, and then he went to college for a period, dropping out because of the racial prejudice he experienced. He traveled a bit, and then settled in New York, where Harlem had become the gathering place for an increasing number of talented, energetic Black artists and activists. Previously, many Black poets had felt they needed to prove themselves, needed to prove something about themselves, to the white world. Langston Hughes and other Black poets who were his contemporaries no longer cared about proving anything to anybody. They were there because they had the right to be there. They belonged. They were there to write poetry, celebrate their people, and speak up for freedom. Hughes wrote a manifesto for them called, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain":

"The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves."

One of Hughes best known and loved poems, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," was written on the back of an envelope as he crossed the Mississippi River on a train to Mexico to visit his father. He was only eighteen. It was published a year later in Crisis magazine (the work of W.E.B. Dubois). During the course of his life, he published fifteen volumes of poetry, as well as several novels and collections of short stories. He wrote a screenplay and several plays for the stage. He wrote a number of children's books, a couple of autobiographies and a few nonfiction titles. He edited a literary paper. He wrote essays on race relations. And he lectured at a college, later in his life.

His poetry was based in the rhythms and style of jazz and black folk music. He wrote about members of the working class.

He was known for being willing to advise and support younger black writers, and he was outspoken about the need for fair and equitable treatment of black people. He was proud of his craft and of his people, and he wanted them to be able to be proud to be Black as well.

When he died in 1967 (the result of surgical complications to treat cancer), his ashes were interred under a floor medallion in the Langston Hughes Lobby of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is part of the New York Public Library system. The medallion is called "Rivers," and it incorporates several lines from Hughes' poem of the same name. The final line of the poem is quoted in the center and serves as his epigraph: "My soul has grown deep like rivers."

Langston Hughes and the AO Curriculum

Langston Hughes is not the first or the only Black poet in the AmblesideOnline curriculum. Some of the poets in our Year 1 anthology are Black. Paul Laurence Dunbar is a Black poet scheduled in Year 5. Phillis Wheatley is studied in AO Year Nine. But Hughes is probably the most widely recognized, and he is also the most recent. (There are many worthy poets who wrote after Hughes, but whose works, like that of Hughes, cannot be included here because they are still under copyright.)

We strongly recommend that AO students in Year Six take a term to read the poetry of Langston Hughes, perhaps using his book The Dream Keeper and Other Poems. ($amzn) (K) However, because he was born in 1901, the majority of his work is not in the public domain, and cannot be included here. His early poems that are public domain were mostly published in The Brownies' Book, which was for very young children. Some of those are included in our Year 1 anthology. As an alternative for this term (or any other term in the upper elementary years), we offer a collection of Other Favorites.

This early poem by Hughes was published in the January, 1922 edition of The Crisis

The Negro

I am a Negro:
     Black as the night is black,
Black like the depths of my Africa.

I've been a slave:
     Caesar told me to keep his door-steps clean,
I brushed the boots of Washington.

I've been a worker:
     Under my hand the pyramids arose.
I made mortar for the Woolworth building.

I've been a singer:
     All the way from Africa to Georgia I carried my sorrow songs.
I made ragtime.

I've been a victim:
     The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo.
They lynch me now in Texas.

I am a Negro:
     Black as the night is black,
Black like the depths of my Africa.

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